St Arilda of Oldbury on Severn, Gloucestershire
by Jane Bradshaw
If books of saints mention St Arilda at all they say she is the patron saint of Oldbury on the Hill, Gloucestershire. This is quite true but she is also the patron saint of Oldbury on Severn, shortly to revert to Gloucestershire after twenty-one years in Avon. These are the only two churches dedicated to this saint but there are three other extant memorials to her.
The first is on the reredos of the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral, the pre-Dissolution Benedictine Abbey of St Peter. This reredos is now, alas, only a framework of empty niches which originally held the statues of three major and thirty-six minor saints . The central niche of the three minor ones on the extreme south edge once held a statue of St Arilda, and the mason’s aide-memoire can still be seen scratched into the stone (see illustration, right). She has also been identified, less certainly in a light in the east window of the Lady Chapel. The glass in this window is made up of fragments of the pre-Dissolution stained glass windows. Rushforth  identifies St Arilda as sharing a light with St Lawrence, to whom Didmarton church, the neighbouring church to Oldbury on the Hill, is dedicated.
The second memorial to her is a hymn and a collect for her feast which are written ‘in a late thirteenth century hand’  on the flyleaf of a book which belonged to Thomas Bredon, abbot of Gloucester from 1224 to 1228. This book passed to the library of Hereford Cathedral after the Dissolution, where it is now in the Chained Library. St Arilda appears in the English Benedictine liturgical Kalendars as ‘virgin and martyr’ with a feastday on 20 July . The hymn and collect have been transcribed and translated for use at Oldbury on Severn. Here is the (rather free) translation:
O Mother Church, today proclaim
The honour of St Arild’s name.
And grant that we may have a share
In that great sound of praise and prayer.
With flesh unstained and pure of mind,
Untouched by sin of humankind,
Your mind was turned to Christ above,
On him alone you fixed your love.
She gave her life to Christ below
And in his strength she smote the foe.
Three times she fought the power of sin
And walked with Christ made pure within.
O bride of Christ, O virgin wise,
The world was worthless in your eyes.
You now in heaven’s eternal light
Are clothed in robes of glory bright.
O maid whose bones in Gloucester rest,
By whom all Gloucester folk are blest,
Help us in sorrow here below,
And then the joys of heaven bestow.
O Arild, of this holy place
The guardian, and our hope of grace,
O Mother, hear your children’s prayer,
That we the peace of Heaven may share.
Pray now for us to Christ your Lord,
Whom by the angels is adored,
That we at last with you may come
To greet Him in our heavenly home.
O God, you have adorned the virginity of St Arild with the high dignity of martyrdom, and you have made this place holy by her death: by her prayers grant us forgiveness, and to this place perpetual safety, through Christ our Lord.
So who was St Arilda, or Arildis, or plain Saxon Arild? From the hymn we deduce that she was a virgin consecrated to God (verses 2, 3 and 4); that she ‘three times…fought the power of sin’, though what this means we are not told; and that she is buried in Gloucester, where she is a guardian of ‘this monastery’ (verse 6 – the translation is rather free here to allow for the hymn to be sung at Oldbury). The Kalendars tell us she was a virgin martyr. Her name in the form Arild is Anglo-Saxon, connected with the name Hilda which means battle maiden.
John Leland, the sixteenth-century traveller and writer gives us some more information, gathered during his visit to Gloucester Abbey. He tells us that St Arilda, ‘martyred at Kington by Thornbury [and] translated to this monastery had done many miracles’, and that she was martyred ‘by one Muncius, a tyrant who cut off her head because she would not consent to lie with him’ . Kington near Thornbury is now in the parish of Oldbury on Severn (which itself was once a chapel of ease to Thornbury church), and here we find the third memorial to St Arilda: her well. A local tradition that the water runs red with her blood is well-founded, as the stones in the well’s outflow are stained red, not with the iron associated with chalybeate springs , but with a freshwater alga rejoicing in the name of Hildebrandia rivularis.
While willing to be corrected, and admitting that much of the following is guesswork, I would suggest that St Arilda was a consecrated virgin who, at some time before the Norman Conquest and perhaps even before the Anglo-Saxon invasions, lived by the well at Kington where she was martyred. Her body was then removed to the hilltop at Oldbury on Severn where the church dedicated to her now stands. A circular churchyard here indicates an ancient holy site, and Roman remains dug up there point to a possible pre-Christian origin, particularly as the hill itself has always been a navigation mark for shipping in the river. After the founding of St Peter’s Abbey in the early part of the eleventh century and the later Norman Conquest the Benedictine monks there, following the policy of centralisation encouraged by the Normans (and probably with an eye to the prestige of the abbey) had her body removed to Gloucester and enshrined in the crypt there. We know from later records that at the Dissolution all the bones buried in the crypt were gathered together and placed in one of the crypt side-chapels, being transferred in the early twentieth century to an unmarked grave in the Cathedral precincts.
The late rector of Oldbury on Severn, the Rev. Norman Stocks, instituted the custom of singing St Arilda’s hymn in the church on the Sunday nearest to her feastday. Since 1986 Oldbury Village History Group has walked from the church to her well on 20 July where the hymn is sung and the collect said, and the proceedings conclude with a picnic. I should add that the well is on private land, with no right of access. The landowner is always most co-operative with the history group’s visitation, but is not altogether enthusiastic about the prospect of a large number of visitors.
The well is now enclosed in a cistern (see illustration), from which the water is piped to the small group of farms and cottages nearby. This water was passed as fit for dairying some years ago, and the Village History Group has drunk it for the last nine years with (so far!) no ill effects. The outflow from the cistern forms pools where the ‘blood’ is found under the shade of a group of trees, which probably encourages the alga, since it is only found in fresh water of a particular temperature. The stream runs on as the ‘Pool Brook’ to form the boundary between Oldbury and Thornbury parishes.
What of Oldbury on the Hill? This is now a ‘redundant church’ of great charm and interest. Why it is dedicated to St Arilda is uncertain. It is some twenty miles from St Arilda’s Well and Oldbury on Severn. Could it have been a resting-place for the saint’s bones on the journey to Gloucester? It seems slightly out of the way. Or was the farm – for it is hardly more than one farm – established by villagers from Oldbury on Severn, who took the memory of their patron saint with them and dedicated their new church, the oldest part of which, according to Verey , is fourteenth century to her? Both theories have been suggested, but neither seems capable of proof.
There are plenty of questions left unanswered, and I should be grateful for any helpful suggestions. Meanwhile it seems, St Arilda has kept her vows to God, survived one or even one and a half thousand years, and is still going strong at Oldbury on Severn.
See also St Arild’s Hymn, Source 5 (New Series).
|1.||Welander, W., (1991); The History, Art and Architecture of Gloucester Cathedral, Appendix VIII, pp. 464-5. Alan Sutton.|
|2.||Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucester Archaeological Society, 43.|
|3.||Letter to the author from Miss J. Williams, Hereford Cathedral Librarian, 29th July 1993.|
|4.||Wormald, F. (Ed.), (1943-4); ‘English Benedictine Kalendars after 1100’, Henry Bradshaw Soc., 81, vol. ii, pp. 41-2.|
|5.||Toulmin-Smith, L. (Ed.), (1907-13); The Itinerary of John Leland, (5 vols.), ii 60, v 156. London.|
|6.||Bord, Janet & Colin, (1985); Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland, pp. 105-7, 207. Paladin.|
|7.||Verey, D., (1974); The Buildings of England: Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, p. 351. Penguin.|
Text © Jane Bradshaw (1998) | Illustrations © Paul Warrilow (1998)
Designed by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 04/01/00